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Mark Rothko Artist Biography

Mark Rothko's paintings with their large expanses of color and uneven, hazy divisions between them, strive to convey emotions rarely attempted in modern art. While his work is greatly admired by many, his detractors either view his attempts at expressing the sublime as over-ambitious or see his paintings merely as boring and wholly unimpressive.

Mark Rothko was born in Dvivsk, Russia in 1903. His early childhood was marked by terror campaigns against the Jews, forcing his mother to emigrate with her children to the United States in 1913. Mark Rothko was forced to learn English and go to work when he was very young, resulting in a lingering sense of bitterness over his lost childhood. He turned out to be a gifted academic and went on to study liberal arts at Yale University from 1921-1923. He left Yale without graduating in 1923 and moved to New York, as he put it, "to bum about and starve a bit". Over the next few years, he took odd jobs and studied for a short time at the Art Students League under Max Weber, one of the only professors there to have firsthand knowledge and enthusiasm for European modernism.

His early paintings were oriented to social themes and contain expressionist as well as surrealist overtones. His subjects reflected Max Weber's influence as well as that of artists such as Marc Chagall.

By the mid-1930s, the effects of the Great Depression were being felt throughout American society, and Mark Rothko became increasingly concerned with the social and political implications of mass unemployment. He began to attend the meetings of the leftist Artists' Union. His paintings at this time were influenced by his acquaintance with the American artist Milton Avery, who became a mentor to him, and a group of young artists that include Adolf Gottlieb. They exposed Mark Rothko to new approaches to color and form, and his work began to feature simplified compositions and flat areas of color.

By the late 1930s, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb had developed a method of painting that incorporated mythic symbols and archetypal figures drawn from Surrealism, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung's theory of the collective unconscious, and primitive and archaic art. Rothko also found inspiration in literary and philosophical texts ranging from ancient Greek tragedy to Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as his Russian-Jewish heritage.

In 1935, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb founded 'The Ten', a group of artists that favored expressionist styles over the more abstract techniques of the Americans. ‘The Ten’ sought to communicate human emotion and human drama through their paintings.          

In 1939, he briefly stopped painting altogether to read mythology and philosophy. He came to see mankind as locked in a mythic struggle with free will and nature and became fascinated with the articulation of interior expression.

From around 1947, Mark Rothko began to develop his mature and distinctive style, turning to complete abstraction. His paintings often featured large rectangles of color in vertical juxtaposition, which became symmetrical in presentation by 1950.

In 1961 Rothko was given a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After years of teaching art to subsidize his painting, this show finally brought him the success he so deserved.

Along with Barnett Newman and Clifford Still, Mark Rothko is regarded as one of the three chief inspirers of color field painting. His paintings were intended to entirely envelope and raise the viewer up and out of the mechanized, commercial society he despised. His color contrasts were carefully chosen in order to convey a wide range of human emotions from foreboding and despair to hope and rapture.

From 1929-1952, Mark Rothko taught at Center Academy, Brooklyn. In the summers of 1947 and 1949, he taught at the California School of Fine Art with Clyfford Still. Later, he collaborated with Baziotes, Hare, Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman in running the art school named ‘The Subjects of the Artist’.

Mark Rothko maintained the social revolutionary ideas of his youth throughout his life. In particular, he supported artist’s total freedom of expression, which he felt was compromised by the art market. This belief often put him at odds with the art world establishment, leading him to occasionally refuse commissions, sales and exhibitions.

Mark Rothko's life was shadowed by his severe depression, and likely an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. In 1970, at the age of 66, he died in New York by his own hand. Painting consumed Rothko's life, and although he didn't receive the attention he felt his work deserved in his own lifetime.

His fame has dramatically increased in the years following his death. Some of his most impressive works were not to be seen until after his death in 1970, when his murals for the nondenominational chapel in Houston, Texas were finally unveiled.

Becoming known as ‘the Rothko Chapel’, these 14 final works were supremely somber in tone but achieve an almost transcendental quality when viewed in the tranquility of the building itself."I'm not an abstract artist, I'm not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on." Mark Rothko.

More art prints from Mark Rothko

Green, white and yellow on yellow By Mark Rothko
Untitled, No 11 By Mark Rothko
Untitled, 1950 By Mark Rothko
Blue And Grey 1962 By Mark Rothko
Untitled, 1968 (Red over Pink) By Mark Rothko
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